A Fish Story

A stork brings babies, and a swallow is the surest way to avoid them. It is clear that mankind has a symbiotic relationship with birds, and so it is with great distress that I report the rapid disappearance of our avian pals from this world. 12 percent of the Earth’s bird species are in danger of extinction, which may not sound like a lot- but picture yourself in an elevator with nine other people. 12 percent is one person dead and another missing a hand when you get to the lobby. Nobody gets out of that car with a clean suit, I can tell you that much. And if we lose that many bird species, a clean suit will be the least of your worries- although the odds of a soiled hat go down considerably. Birds, schmirds, however. Who cares about birds? Birds are for the-well, you know. The birds. They may be a crucial skein in the web of life, but aside from the explosion in the insect population and the collapse of the wild seed-spreading mechanism, we can do without birds, right? And fish. Who needs fish?

Because it’s not just the birds, it’s fish. And the fish situation stinks, if I may: 90% of large fish are dead. Large fish are the ones we eat, unless you’re one of those Scandinavian types that can’t get enough herring. These pulchritudinous pelagic pioneers (the herrings, not the Scandinavians, although the description fits either species) have so far survived the mass slaughter, probably because kippers are so awful. Close your eyes. Are you back aboard the elevator? Good, now let’s imagine nine out of ten of the people in the car have been killed. That means everybody but you. That’s how bad it is with the big fish. Cod, swordfish, tuna, marlin- all those classic chow fish are 90% gone, and pretty much every other kind of fish over a foot long. Their elevator is headed for the basement. What’s really scary about this, other than the idea of the death of the oceans, which ought to scare you enough right there, is that nobody really understood this problem until this year-I have a report from just two years ago warning that 70% of commercially fished species were at risk: either at maximum extraction capacity, or depleted, or struggling back from depletion. Oops. Not 70% at risk, sorry gang. Actually 90% gone.

So you don’t go fishing much, what’s it to you? At last you can swim without fear of toothy creatures with fins coming after you, right? Sure, if you don’t mind swimming in an ocean of rapidly mounting insect-like sealife and acres of slime and vast areas of lifeless mud. I was on the shore of a certain liberal stronghold known as Martha’s Vineyard last summer and witnessed a sight I won’t soon forget. The sea was maroon, as far as the eye could see. I waded into the maroon water, hoping it might be radioactive. In fact it was swarming with krill, billions of tiny flea-like critters in such gigantic numbers that they were washing ashore in solid mats like lice-infested doss-house mattresses. We’re talking about thousands of tons of them. Why? Because their predators are 90% dead. Not only would this be a nasty condition to swim in, you couldn’t swim if you tried: the water was the consistency of French (or ‘freedom’, if you prefer) onion soup. The kind of French onion soup with krill in it. I had to scrape my legs off with a piece of driftwood. Or maybe it was a dead cod.

The point is this, and there is in fact a point: I’ll bet you the bird situation is also underestimated. When’s the last time you woke up at the crack of dawn because there were so many birds singing? Prior to the 20th Century this was the subject of jokes and many banal folk sayings. “Up with the lark”? That meant something once, and it suggested you were making too much noise much too early. “The crack of sparrowfart” is another expression meaning the same thing. These days, you’re lucky if you hear three or four of the hapless little brutes twittering away in their respective trees. It’s like media consolidation: less news from fewer sources. But with media extinction, it’s only fatal to democracy. With birds, it’s fatal to life on Earth. We need them. And not just chickens and the occasional duck. We need all the birds. All those dying forests attacked by beetles? Time was, there would have been birds to deal with the situation. Now we just watch the forests primeval turn brown and die. Just on the observed evidence, I’d say that more than12 percent of birds are in danger.

There are 9,800 species of birds (remember: it’s kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species; birds are kingdom animalia, phylum chordata, class aves, and thereafter you get into personal details). Half of them, more or less, are in competition with direct human influences such as deforestation, habitat loss in general, and even housepets (kitty cats kill a billion birds a year in America alone-that’s why they act so smug). Almost all bird species are indirectly under pressure from our behavior: global warming, for instance, has caused insect species to peak in numbers earlier in the year than ever before; the migrating birds who would normally tuck into these bugs are showing up at the usual time, wings aching, only to discover the feast has already moved on. And all those polar ice birds are pretty much crewed without polar ice, aren’t they? Give the scientists a couple more years, and I think we’ll be getting bad bird news on the magnitude of the bad fish news. Let’s not even touch on the subject of amphibians, who are showing signs of cracking under pressure to such a degree that they could all disappear very suddenly, none of this slow decline stuff that the World Wildlife Fund thrives on. There is trouble out there in the wilderness, folks.

So let’s recap: both life in the oceans and life in the skies has been decimated. The word “decimation” comes from Imperial Rome’s practice of expressing disappointment with the military by killing every tenth soldier in line. This may explain why the Roman legionaries were such overachievers. The avian air forces have been better than decimated; as far as edible fish are concerned, we have killed all but every tenth soldier. The Roman Empire fell centuries ago, ravaged and ruined. We are confronted by the decision, like Hamlet’s Horatio, whether we are “more an antique Roman than a Dane”. Because the Romans wiped themselves out, and the Danes eat nothing but herring. In either case, the way it goes for the birds and fish is the way it will go for us–and none of them have read Shakespeare, so we’d better decide soon whether to be, or not to be.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: credel@earthlink.net